Racine County

Play Ball!

IMG_2484Hilda and I never played baseball with uniforms, referees, coaches, or practices. Baseball, to us, was the game you played on the diamond by the well pit or out in the sheep pasture, whenever a family picnic brought in enough players. Players ranged in age from the six-year-old just learning to swing a bat, to Dad, who was permanent pitcher.

With Dad pitching, the young child’s hit managed to roll right past the pitcher’s mound, yet Dad always seemed to catch the ball hit by the teenager. Our games were more about everyone playing together than keeping score.

When writing Hattie’s War, we drew on our childhood experiences to create the neighborhood ball games in Hattie’s yard. This Saturday, we’ll be watching the Milwaukee Cream Citys play vintage baseball. Their games, played in an open field in a park ringed by oak trees, are much more like our games in the pasture than like watching the Brewers at Miller Park.

Please join us at Greenfield Park at 1:00 on Saturday, May 2 to see how base ball was played in Hattie’s day. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and enjoy an afternoon outdoors.  Details can be found on the Cream Citys webpage. Books will be available for purchase as well.

 

 

Categories: Childhood Memories, Hattie's War, Racine County, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Fair Days

Katrina Lutze and her Hampshire lamb at the Porter County Fair in 1999

Katrina Lutze and her Hampshire lamb at the Porter County Fair in 1999

Fifteen years ago when my ten year-old daughter Katrina began showing 4-H lambs at the Porter County Fair in Northwest Indiana, her nine year-old cousin David came to visit from suburban Chicago.   City boy David swept the aisles between the animal pens so faithfully that the sheep barn won the Cleanest Barn contest.

When we were not at the fairgrounds, David’s mother Emily and I worked on an idea for a book we called “Girls of the Plank Road,” a story of pioneer Wisconsin featuring the first Racine County Fair.   We had fond memories of our own county fair days, and my daughter’s Hampshire lamb was descended from the sheep that Emily and our brothers and sisters and I had shown in the 1970’s as members of the Yorkville 4-H Club.

Back then, the sheep and many of the other animals were exhibited in tents, but today the fairgrounds features an extensive array of permanent structures, including a long row of livestock barns.   The Plank Road families of the nineteenth century would be amazed to see what enormous enterprises the county fairs of the Midwest have become.

The Racine County Fairgrounds looks considerably different from the open fields in which the first county fairs took place in the 1850s.

Today the Racine County Fairgrounds looks considerably different from the open fields in which the first county fair took place in the 1850s.

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Plank Road Visions

Some of us tell stories in words, others in pictures.  Our photographer sister Gretchen captures moments in light and shadow, and her visions have included the Plank Road world of the twenty-first century.

John G reading PRS at night

This award-winning photograph shows a young reader in the very bedroom in which Emily and I imagined the McEachron sisters looking out over the lilacs behind the farmhouse.  Careful observers may be able to recognize the book in this picture, a choice that gladdened our hearts.

The autumn photograph below shows four children at home watching their Yorkville neighbors harvesting the fields once farmed by the McEachrons.

children watching Yorkville harvest

Like our favorite stories, Gretchen’s visions have a timeless quality. It’s easy to understand why she specializes in photographing babies and children in southeastern Wisconsin. You will find more of her work at Gigi’s Joy Photography.

Categories: Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: | 1 Comment

Introducing Plank Road Winter

On Sunday, September 30, 1:00-4:00 pm, Emy and I look forward to welcoming the public along with old friends and neighbors at the Plank Road Winter launch party.  The celebration will be held at the 4-H Clover Center, 17640 Old Yorkville Road, a few miles north of Union Grove,Wisconsin.  This 1885 schoolhouse stands at the very heart of the original Yorkville settlement.

Set almost twenty years after the adventures of Katie and Florence, Plank Road Winter features thirteen-year-old Sophie Caswell, who longs to escape the dull farming community of Yorkville. Sophie’s plans are thwarted when the Chicago Fire leads to the arrival of twelve-year-old Hans Hoffman and his family at the nearby McEachron farm. While Sophie stubbornly pursues her dreams, Hans struggles to adapt to a world very different from his bustling Chicago neighborhood.

In the spirit of nineteenth-century community gatherings, the entertainment at the Plank Road Winter launch party will include traditional music provided by John and Susan Nicholson of the Milwaukee band  Frogwater and old-time dancing called by Patricia Lynch of the West Side Victorian Dancers.

We hope to see you there!

Categories: On Writing, Plank Road Winter, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Independence Day in Wisconsin 1852

Happy Independence Day!

This passage from Plank Road Summer shows how our American holiday was celebrated 160 years ago:

Now known as Pioneer Park, the riverbank along which Richard Ela’s factory once stood in Rochester, Wisconsin, is still a beautiful picnic spot.

Along the river between the bridge and the factory, many families were spreading quilts on the grass.  Katie and Amos spread theirs in the shade of a maple where they had a good view of the side door of Mr. Ela’s factory.  The speakers would stand on the stone steps of the factory.  Nearby, the American flag flapped in the breeze.  Ma and Matilda unpacked the fried chicken, black raspberry tarts, thick slices of bread and butter, and peas in the pod. . .

A distinguished-looking man climbed the stone steps.  He held up a hand for silence, and the crowd quieted to listen.  “On behalf of my townsmen,” Richard Ela began, “I welcome all of you to Rochester on the anniversary of our Independence.  This glorious day on which our freedom was declared is one we Americans must never forget.  In honor of the occasion, Rochester’s own schoolmaster will now recite the Declaration of Independence.”

The schoolmaster’s clear voice rang out over the crowd.

   We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .

The familiar words echoed across the hot July air.  A shiver went down Katie’s back as she realized that across this vast country, from New York all the way west to California, Americans would pause from their daily work to hear these words and mark this day.

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At the Well

Mather Inn Well

Emily Demuth and her daughter, Louisa, at the Mather Inn well excavation.

  

The archaeologist, Norm Meinholz, was digging at the site of Mather Inn again this month.  This time, I managed to get back to Wisconsin while the dig was still open. Meinholz had uncovered part of the old foundation and established the exact location of the Inn, when  it stood facing the Plank Road.   The Mather Inn itself still stands  a stone’s throw away–it was moved many years ago, and now faces what would have been the Section Line Road between the Mather and McEachron properties.   

Just a few paces west of the foundation, the archaeologist had found the well.  Stones formed a perfect semi-circle (only half had been uncovered).  It was easy to imagine Katie pulling a bucket  of water from the well, setting the bucket on the stone rim, and peering at her reflection–even though that scene was edited out of our book during an early revision.    

Many scenes never made it into the final version of Plank Road Summer, including one which our mother particularly liked.  This lost scene was the first introduction to the Mather Inn from Katie’s point of view:  

“Katie walked past the grand front door that led to the parlor and the ballroom upstairs–that was for guests.  She hurried round past the porch on the west side, which led to the dining room–that was for teamsters.  At the back of the house she rapped at the kitchen door–that was for neighbor children.  Mrs. Mather was very particular about the proper use of doors.”  

As I walked around the original site of the Inn and stood where the front door had once been, I slipped back in time–back to when traffic sounds were the creak of a harness or clopping of hooves, and when water came not from the faucet but from a bucket drawn daily from the well.  Had Hilda and I seen this circle of stones a couple of years ago, I’m sure we’d have kept the well scene in our book.  

Click here to read a newspaper article about the first dig.  

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Mather Inn, On Writing, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

A Return to Yorkville

The students at Yorkville Elementary School in Racine County, Wisconsin, have a distinct advantage over students elsewhere when it comes to imagining the scenes of Plank Road Summer. Their school buses travel down the plank road past the old McEachron and Mather homesteads, climb up over the Rise, and pass the pioneer cemetery on Old Yorkville Road.

The Modine-Benstead Observatory now stands on the Rise.

When I visited the school recently, the students enjoyed trying to figure out which local landmarks now stand at the places mentioned in the book.  For example, the high point of land known as the Rise is now the site of the Modine-Benstead Observatory.   The Waites’ Corners schoolhouse once stood among the oaks just south of today’s popular Country Rose Bakery and Cafe.

This week I received a packet from Mrs. Mary Jo North, the Yorkville teacher who coordinated my visit.  In the envelope were thank-you notes from representatives of the student body.  Here is a portion of one:

You taught us about the writing process and all the research you had to do to write your novels.  A lot of us love to read, including myself, and some of us dream about writing our own novels.  You helped us see what we’re up against, but that it’s also possible for dreams to come true. . .

. . . You taught us to never give up and keep going when things get rough.  Even though you submitted your story for publishing and got refused over 20 times, you and your sister never gave up.  Whether we ever attempt to write a novel or not, it will help us in whatever else we do.

Thank you, Kristina, for those beautiful words.  Your teachers at Yorkville School should be proud indeed.

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A Place on the Shelf

When Emily and I appeared at the Racine Lutheran High School Ladies’ Guild Harvest Fair, our Plank Road Summer book display was set up in an impressively renovated lobby which looked nothing like the entrance we remembered from our high school days. The RLHS Harvest Fair itself, on the other hand, seemed exactly the same–a gymnasium full of tables heaped with linens, books, craft items, baked goods, and the ever-popular “trash and treasure” selection in the corner.

During a break from book-signing, I wandered down a corridor in search of familiar flooring and fixtures. At the top of a stairwell I peered into the darkened classroom which had belonged to Mr. Adel. White-haired Mr. Adel, my ninth grade English teacher, was also the school librarian, and the little library adjoining his classroom became my favorite haven.

Mr. Adel recommended books and discussed them with me afterward. I set myself the ambitious goal of reading the entire fiction collection, beginning with Alcott and Austen and working my way through Zola.

Sophomore year I began writing a novel, an undertaking that cut into my reading time considerably. Faithful Mr. Adel read every word of the chapters I hammered out on my mother’s old manual typewriter. I knew exactly where my novel would be located on the Lutheran High library shelves; I could already picture the label FIC DEM on the spine.

While that unfinished novel is now in a box in my attic with other abandoned projects, the fact that a teacher took me seriously as a writer is a significant factor in my success today. Having Plank Road Summer on a shelf in a school library is sweeter than any display at Barnes & Noble. I think Mr. Adel would understand.

Categories: Childhood Memories, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Racine County | Tags: , | Leave a comment

See You at the Fair!

The Racine County Fair, that is. This weekend, Hilda and Emily Demuth, co-authors of Plank Road Summer, will be at the Racine County Fair in Union Grove, Wisconsin, on Saturday, August 1 (12-5 pm), to sign books and host some fun family activities.

Be sure to stop by their program tent on Saturday afternoon (it’s on the NE corner of Polley Drive and Creuziger Lane, near the Case exhibit, by Gate 5). For other events and directions, see the Racine County Fair website.

Why we’re excited: a major event in Plank Road Summer is . . . (drum roll, please) the first Racine County Fair! It was held in the early 1850s just west of the Mather Inn (one of the key places in the book).

Like the county fair itself, Plank Road Summer celebrates the community spirit and the rich heritage of the pioneer Midwest.

Hilda, Emily, and friends will be there Saturday from 12 to 5 pm. Besides signing books, they’re hosting wool-carding on an antique drum carder, a bit of live old-time fiddle music, and a display on Racine County history.

So come on down to the fair! Enjoy the rides, the 4-H exhibits . . . and meet the authors of this exciting novel for kids about county fairs, pioneer life, plank roads, fugitive slaves . . . and more!

From Plank Road Summer:

Even though she had watched the preparations day by day, Florence was still astonished at her first sight of the Racine County Fair. The north end of the Doanes’ front forty was lined with nearly a hundred wagons and buggies. The clamor of livestock provided a constant accompaniment to all the other goings-on.

Among the dozen enormous tents, Florence could pick out the dinner tent in which ladies of the Scotch Settlement church and the Methodist chapel were working together to feed hungry fairgoers. Next to the dinner tent stood a dance platform where a fiddler sawed a merry tune. Florence remembered someone’s claim that there would be enough players that the music at the fair would never end.

Mrs. Mather led the way to the domestic skills exhibits, which were flanked by a brilliant wall of quilts swaying on a line strung between two tents.

(As you may know, quilts and quilting also play a big role in the book!)

Hope to see you this weekend!

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Midsummer Eve: Keeping the Fires of Cornwall

During my Valparaiso University semester abroad, in Cornwall I enjoyed reading by the hearth in the youth hostel, hiking along the cliffs, and watching the sea.  I remember standing at Land’s End looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, thinking about the many emigrants who had watched their homeland fade into a gray haze of sea and sky.

I did not know then that my sister Emily and I would write about the Cornish settlers of our own Wisconsin community.  In the tree-shaded Yorkville Methodist cemetery, the pale weathered stones of the pioneers are scattered among the sharp granite markers of their descendants.

In the Plank Road days, Cornish settlers must have sought ways to connect the old ways with the new.  Along with telling stories of the old country, they shared the tastes of home–pasties every day and saffron cake on special occasions–and worshiped together at the Methodist “mud chapel,” singing hymns and carols known for generations.

Other traditions must have persisted as well.  There are no cliffs in Yorkville, so on Midsummer Eve the Cornish pioneers were never to see “a chain of fires on the clifftops stretching all along the seacoast,”  as Gran Mather described the custom to Florence.  Yet lighting a bonfire on June 23 and sharing a ritual for prosperity in the coming year would be one way of honoring the old ways and helping the young people to appreciate the place they knew “only through stories and songs, the land where others shared in the keeping of the fires.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, such Midsummer traditions had died out even in Cornwall, but in the 1920s various organizations were formed to preserve the Cornish heritage.  The motto of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies is “Cuntelleugh an brewyon us gesys na vo kellys travyth” (Gather up the fragments that are left that nothing be lost).  You can learn more about Midsummer Eve fires and other Cornish customs at the Federation website: <http://www.oldcornwall.org/&gt;

The Plank Road Summer Resources for Teachers include materials related to immigration and Cornish traditions provided by the Wisconsin historic site of Pendarvis.


Categories: Cornish in Wisconsin, Plank Road Summer Teaching Ideas, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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